News Brand Attribution in Distributed Environments

Do people know where the news they read comes from? That question is not necessarily as bizarre as you may think in today’s online society as news is often distributed and shared through different networks such as social media, being consumed in places other than the news provider’s direct channels.

This article seeks to determine whether (online) readers correctly attribute read stories to the brand that produced it, a so-called ‘news brand attribution’. The findings are reasonable as expected, namely that those who have directly accessed a story from the producer’s channel, e.g. a website, are more likely to correctly identify the brand compared to those who have seen it through a third-party venue. ‘When a news story was arrived at directly, brand attribution was correct 81% of the time. However, correct brand attribution was much lower when news was discovered via search engines (37%) and social media (47%),’ noted the article.

The implications are manifold, particularly with concerns about fake news, as well as vulnerability issues with social media and aggregated sites that may favour or disfavour a news source through algorithmic change. For media producers there are a multitude of business issues too that may emerge when audiences are less loyal, brands are diluted and reputations not so strengthened.

The research methodology was relevant, using passive tracking and user survey panels, examining news consumption through direct, search and social means. Users in the United Kingdom were studied, although it is quite conceivable that the same issues identified may exist in other countries too. One valid limitation was the tracking application used for the survey, which could not track mobile use – it can be speculated whether that would make a difference to the data on the one hand, but it feels that any differences would probably be more split between demographic factors rather than being capable of changing the findings-at-large.

Search engines and social media have a crucial role to play in increasing discoverability of content, particularly to those who were not aware of the source, yet on the other hand, users are less likely to ‘go direct’, meaning that they increasingly rely on consolidation and aggregation of sources. With convenience comes risk when one is not proactively looking for news from a specific branded, specific news within their access method of choice.

The article is clearly written, backed up with engaging literature references and relevant discussion, for which the authors should be credited. Other authors could learn from this! The key findings were mostly as expected insofar that those who access news directly are ‘associated with a significantly higher rate of correct news brand attribution than distributed discovery via either search engines or social media.’ Favourite or preferable news sources remain equally identifiable too, irrespective of the access method. The longer a reader is engaged with a story, the better the brand association also. However, one interesting discovery is that younger users are more likely to identify news sources discovered through search engines correctly. This could be a fruitful line of further inquiry. The authors also identify many areas of future potential research that could be warranted.

Kalogeropoulos, A., Fletcher, R. and Nielsen, R.K., 2018. News brand attribution in distributed environments: Do people know where they get their news?. New Media & Society, 1(19). DOI:10.1177/1461444818801313

A post-publication review of this article that appears on Publons.